Al-Ahram Weekly Online   17 - 23 August 2006
Issue No. 808
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Old alliances intact

Attempting to draw a balance sheet for the war on Lebanon, Dina Ezzat finds the diplomatic picture largely unchanged

When Arab foreign ministers meet in Cairo at the headquarters of the Arab League Sunday, they will consider a situation the nature of which they surely did not predict when they first met on the Israeli war on Lebanon during the second week of July.

The difference between the context then and now is enormous, to say the least. At the first meeting, Hizbullah was deemed to be a losing party. The Iranian-Syrian alignment, behind Hizbullah, was similarly perceived as weak before a joint Saudi-Egyptian-Jordanian front that criticised Hizbullah for provoking Israel's wrath.

Having stood almost alone in defending the right of Hizbullah to capture Israeli soldiers, on Sunday, Syria will be gloating. And representatives of other Arab countries will have to do what they had previously refused to: pay tribute to the steadfastness of Hizbullah and the entire Lebanese nation in the face of the Israeli war machine.

This much is clear: the Israeli army failed to break down the military structure of Hizbullah. And despite extensive damage sustained across almost all of Lebanon as a result of relentless Israeli strikes, Hizbullah, as now most Arab capitals admit, demonstrated remarkable steadfastness.

Yet the UN resolution that brought a tentative -- some hope permanent -- end to Israeli aggression against Lebanon did not grant Hizbullah the mutual swap of prisoners it sought. Neither did it stipulate a clear request for Israel to withdraw from the Shebaa Farms area. Indeed, the opposite, with most informed diplomatic sources in the Arab world and New York acknowledging the leaked US promise to Israel that it would not have to be pushed out of Shebaa contrary to its wishes.

Indeed, UN Security Council Resolution 1701, passed unanimously in the early hours of Saturday and that led to Monday's 7am local time "cessation of hostilities", was not about an immediate ceasefire nor was about warning Israel against re-launching military operations in Lebanon. On the contrary, the resolution made direct reference to an Israeli right to self- defence -- initially underlined by US President George W Bush to justify Israel's aggression on Lebanon. The reference does not exclude a resort to military power -- or at least to what several Western -- and for that matter Arab -- capitals have referred to as "excessive use of power".

"It is an unbalanced resolution that we accepted out of our will to end the bloodshed," commented Qatari Foreign Minister Hamad Ben Jaber Al-Thani after participating in the UN Security Council resolution vote. In New York for a five-day mission with Arab League secretary-general, the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates and the acting foreign minister of Lebanon, the top Qatari diplomat acknowledged that the situation on the ground after a month of Israeli offensive action was not fairly or accurately reflected in the resolution due to the balance of world powers.

This said, the resolution in its final draft is, as most Arab diplomats admit, much better than in its original draft or even midway draft. "It was a 90 or 80 per cent bad resolution and we managed to make it a 70 or 60 per cent bad resolution," said Hesham Youssef, chief of the cabinet of the Arab League secretary-general. Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly following his return from New York, Youssef, like many other Arab diplomats, is willing to consider the fact that the resolution is issued under Chapter VI rather than Chapter VII of the UN Charter -- where the latter allows for the use of force to ensure implementation -- is a diplomatic achievement.

Most Arab diplomats -- including those from Egypt whose official stance in the early days of the war was to put all blame squarely at the feet of Hizbullah for having dragged Lebanon into "miscalculated adventures" -- acknowledge that it is primarily the military steadfastness of Hizbullah and its ability to induce serious military damage on Israel that allowed 1701 to pass without reference to several political conditions such as the disarmament of all militias in Lebanon or the replacement of the current UN force, UNIFIL, with what the Americans, British and Israelis wanted to be a multinational stabilising force mandated to bear arms, if necessary, against Hizbullah.

The new regional reality that appears as a result of a war that nobody -- maybe not even the Israelis -- anticipated is likely to force the meeting of foreign ministers to go beyond the three- point agenda that Youssef told reporters Monday the extraordinary meeting would focus on: the fair implementation of Resolution 1701, future Arab moves aimed at launching a new peace process under the umbrella of the UN Security Council, and proposals from both Yemen and Saudi Arabia to convene an extraordinary Arab summit, for whatever it's worth.

In Cairo Sunday, Arab foreign ministers may well wish to consider if the face of the region has changed as a result of a war that, contrary to expectations, appears to have been lost by Israel. They may also wish to consider if the erstwhile leading countries of the region retain political credibility, or whether a regional realignment may be in order now that regimes which more or less argued that Israel is too strong to confront and that the Arabs are too weak take back what they feel is legitimately theirs have been proven wrong by a resistance movement that is much smaller than most Arab armies. Indeed, many Arab foreign ministers might feel that the outcome of the 34-day Israeli war on Lebanon should prompt a reconceptualisation of some elements of national diplomatic discourse, and much of the mandate of collective Arab diplomacy under the umbrella of the Arab League.

In speeches made Tuesday by Hizbullah's most prominent supporters, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, statements made by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that a "new Middle East" was being born out of the Israeli war on Lebanon have been roundly rejected. "The people of the region are after a new Middle East; a new Middle East that is free from US and Zionist domination," said the Iranian president. For his part, Al-Assad said: "The US is planning for a new Middle East... and the world will not consider our interests unless we are strong," warning of US- Israeli attempts to militarise conditions in the Arab world. Meanwhile, Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Perez argued Tuesday that, "Every war creates an opportunity for a new political process... We must hold dialogue with Lebanon and we could create conditions for dialogue with Syria."

Not to be overlooked is growing public sentiment against defeatism, as well as sympathy with the values of resistance, proliferating with images of Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah and impacting on the status of Shia groups across the Arab world, especially in Arab Gulf states, leading to a declining public sympathy with calls for normalising relations with Israel. The obvious failure of pro-US Arab regimes to prompt Washington to stop the war also has left scars that may yet transform the Arab order of states. Some Arab diplomats, meanwhile, express genuine concern about early signs of civil war in Lebanon, with staunch critics of Damascus saying such a calamity could be ignited by the Syrian regime that had never quite overcome the humiliation of being forced out of Lebanon by a mixture of international pressure and internal and vociferous popular criticism.

On the other hand, some remain unmoved. "Neither the international order nor the regional order allows for a new Middle East as such. As the dust settles we will see, but it will be more or less the same Middle East -- maybe with Israel being more calculating of its reactions in the future," commented one Egyptian source. According to the source, the impact of the outcome of the war on Cairo- based diplomacy is unlikely to be significant "simply due to the fact that no matter how much we worried about the calculations of Hizbullah we have acted consistently with our assessment that suggested that this would be a big war with a serious toll on Lebanon."

According to this diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, Cairo, which opposed all American attempts to misrepresent the war to the international community as a humanitarian rather than a political disaster, will continue to adopt the same diplomatic approach that aims to reach a peaceful and comprehensive end to the Arab- Israeli conflict "through talks with all parties concerned, especially with the US, who will remain for a long while to come the world's only superpower and the strongest guarantor of Israeli interests." In other words, Cairo is not prepared to change its alignment with Jordan and Saudi Arabia, nor does it expect them to change. Neither is it expecting a significant change for the better or worse in its relationship with Syria, even after this week's harsh criticism by President Al-Assad against Egypt's initial position on the war.

A Jordanian source speaking to the Jordanian daily Ad-Dustour earlier this week indicated that Amman and Cairo are working to re-launch Palestinian-Israeli talks with the hope of getting down to final status issues. This is a scenario that is not categorically rejected in Cairo.

As for Iran and Turkey, Egypt is not planning any closer alliance or even coordination. The visit of Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki to Egypt this week, coming as part of a regional tour, Egyptian sources say, allowed for direct talks on the future of the region in general and the issue of Lebanon in particular, but did not go much beyond that.

Statements coming out of most Arab capitals this week, indicated no intention on the side of ruling regimes to reconsider close ties with the US or their positions on what kind of settlement they wish to soon see for the Arab-Israeli conflict. And what applies for Egypt applies also for other regional players: that all are likely to stick firm with established alliances.

"Arab countries have agreed to go to a special meeting with the UN Security Council next month to set out a new peace process in view of the overall assessment that the peace process of the past few years has failed to deliver peace or lead significantly in that direction," said Youssef. He promptly added, however, that: "this does not mean at all that the terms of reference of any future Arab-Israeli peace process will deviate from the classic UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338 or the land-for-peace concept."

According to Youssef, the future peace process will maintain the structure of bilateral parallel tracks and is unlikely to opt for any collective Arab-Israeli peace negotiations. Nonetheless, any renewed peace process, argued the chief of the cabinet of the Arab League secretary-general, would be under the auspices of the UN and "should have a definite time framework".

Indeed, a role for the international community as a whole (as opposed to simply the United States, as has been traditional), in negotiations around a settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict appears a likely outcome of the Israeli war on Lebanon. "There is a growing role for the UN and for Europe to play there," said Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alima following talks in Cairo with President Hosni Mubarak.

The role the top Italian diplomat discussed on a regional tour will go beyond traditional economic assistance. But as the Italian and other prominent European Union officials stressed, it would always be a role complementary to that of the US.

The question remains whether or not the coming weeks will allow for today's fragile cessation of hostilities to evolve into a credible ceasefire, especially that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that Israel will watch out for the ability of the Lebanese government to extend its authority in South Lebanon and that many Israeli officials have warned that Israel will not give Hizbullah the chance to rebuild its capacities.

Lebanon's minister of defence said this week that his government is to deploy 15,000 troops south. The UN is to decide within days the composition and mandate of a re-enforced UN force to deploy alongside the Lebanese army. Palestinians meanwhile, according to Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, are bracing themselves for angry Israeli retribution operations against Gaza in the coming days.

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